Chapter 13

1 Maccabees 13

1) When Simon heard that Trypho was gathering a large army to invade and ravage the land of Judah, 2) and saw that the people were trembling with terror, he went up to Jerusalem. There he assembled the people

COMMENTARY:  Finally we’re down to Simon the Wise—the smart brother.  We’ll see how this plays out.



3) and exhorted them in these words: “You know what I, my brothers, and my father’s house have done for the laws and the sanctuary; what battles and hardships we have seen.

COMMENTARY:  Stating his credentials.



4) For the sake of this, for the sake of Israel, all my brothers have perished, and I alone am left.

COMMENTARY:  At this point he still believes that Jonathan has died.  I did, too, reading this far.



5) Far be it from me, then, to save my own life in any time of distress, for I am not better than my brothers.

COMMENTARY:  Humility and integrity—that’s a good start!



6) But I will avenge my nation and the sanctuary, as well as your wives and children, for out of hatred all the Gentiles have united to crush us.”

COMMENTARY:  Sound politics.  You can move anyone to action if you can convince them that their wives and children are at stake—which in this case is true.  And also if their religion is at stake—which in this case is probably not true (by now the Gentiles have figured out that attacking the religion of the Israelites stirs up too much trouble with zero reward) but which is plausible, given their recent history.  And attributing hatred as the motive of the enemy always sells well.  It depends on how you define hatred, though.  I’m sure the rank and file Gentile couldn’t care less whether the Jews lived or died, but the leaders did hate having stubbornly independent warriors on their borders.



7) As the people heard these words, their spirit was rekindled.

COMMENTARY:  Absolutely essential.  If Simon hadn’t stepped up, a demoralized populace would have made easy prey.



8) They shouted in reply: “You are our leader in place of your brothers Judas and Jonathan.

COMMENTARY:  Simon is now popularly elected.



9)  Fight our battles, and we will do everything that you tell us.”

COMMENTARY:  By this they mean “Take charge of our strategy” for of course Simon isn’t going to take on Trypho’s army by himself.



10) So Simon mustered all the men able to fight, and hastening to complete the walls of Jerusalem, fortified it on every side.

COMMENTARY:  Wall-building, in addition to providing much-needed fortification, also helped build the muscles of the draftees—sort of a multipurpose boot camp.



11) He sent Jonathan, son of Absalom, to Joppa with a strong force; Jonathan drove out the occupants and remained there.

COMMENTARY:  Not only does this supply a good strategic post, but it also gives the recently terrified populace a first victory to hearten them.



12)  Then Trypho moved from Ptolemais with a large army to invade the land of Judah, bringing Jonathan with him as a prisoner.

COMMENTARY:  So Jonathan of the Maccabees is alive!  That changes the whole picture!



13) Simon encamped at Adida, facing the plain.

COMMENTARY:  Facing the plain, but with defensible highlands at his back should he need to retreat.



14) When Trypho learned that Simon had succeeded his brother Jonathan, and that he intended to fight him, he sent ambassadors to him with this message: 15) “It was on account of the money your brother Jonathan owed the royal treasury in connection with the offices that he held, that we have detained him.

COMMENTARY:  I can’t say whether or not Jonathan really owed the money.  Whatever the case, it offered a plausible alternative to the “hate” narrative.  Trypho’s not so much playing this to Simon as to the populace.



16)  Now send a hundred talents of silver, and two of his sons as hostages to guarantee that when he is set free he will not revolt against us, and we will release him.”

COMMENTARY:  So now the people see a way out that won’t involve bloodshed.  Of course it’s extortion, but one might argue that that’s better than violent bleeding mayhem.



17)  Simon knew that they were speaking deceitfully to him. Nevertheless, for fear of provoking much hostility among the people, he sent for the money and the boys,

COMMENTARY:  Like I said, he’s the smartest of the brothers.  He sees through to the trap, but also knows that he has to keep the goodwill of his people at all costs—and he knows that Trypho knows this.



18) lest the people say “Jonathan perished because I would not send Trypho the money and the boys.”

COMMENTARY:  This means more than fearing gossip.  If he doesn’t display every effort to get his brother back, whose authority he currently commands as his own, the people would see him as a usurper willing to sell out his own brother for power.  Even if they followed him for lack of any better, their morale would falter and they’d become easily defeated; they would not believe that God could be with someone like that.



19) So he sent the boys and the hundred talents; but Trypho broke his promise and would not release Jonathan.

COMMENTARY:  As expected, but they’d have had this result anyway.  Keeping the loyalty of the people was worth a hundred talents.  Not so great for the sons of Jonathan, but they might stand a better chance of survival where they are.  At this point Trypho has not yet killed the boy-king, so Simon had reason to hope for his nephews.  As to their eventual fate, no surviving history tells us.



20) Next Trypho moved to invade and ravage the country. His troops went around by the road that leads to Adora, but Simon and his army moved along opposite him everywhere he went.

COMMENTARY:  Adora’s a few miles southeast of Beth-Zur.  Trypho’s trying to sneak around in a flanking move, but not yet confronting major strongholds.  Simon anticipated this move, though, and won’t let him get away with it.



21) The people in the citadel kept sending emissaries to Trypho, pressing him to come to them by way of the wilderness, and to send them provisions.

COMMENTARY:  Yep, those guys are still there.  If they can get out emissaries, they can sneak out people enough to get some provisions in, enough to stay barely alive, but not to properly feed them all well enough to enable them to fight.



22) Although Trypho got all his cavalry ready to go, there was a very heavy snowfall that night, and he could not go on account of the snow. So he left for Gilead.

COMMENTARY:  The Israelites would consider this providential.  Snow does occasionally fall in the region, but rarely heavily.



23) When he was approaching Baskama, he had Jonathan killed and buried him there.

COMMENTARY:  Baskama’s possibly northeast of the Sea of Galilee.  Jonathan has no further use to Trypho, who has already shown Simon that he doesn’t keep promises.  But now Simon rules free of question.



24) Then Trypho returned to his own land.

COMMENTARY:  Because Demetrius had escaped captivity and, quite naturally, wanted to put down the usurper.



25) Simon sent for the remains of his brother Jonathan, and buried him in Modein, the city of his ancestors.

COMMENTARY:  Burial in one’s ancestral home meant a lot to the ancient Jews.  Their first claim to the land of Israel came about because Abraham insisted on burying his wife there.  It reinforced their sense of connection to the land.



26) All Israel bewailed him with solemn lamentation, mourning over him for many days.


The first stage of solemn lamentation, Aninuit, would extend from the moment of learning of the death, to the conclusion of the funeral.  Mourners become exempt from all usual active religious requirements, such as daily prayers, out of respect for the shock that they must feel, although inactive requirements, such as refraining from labor on the Sabbath, still hold.  It is at this time they rend an outer garment; the position of the rip depends upon the relationship of the deceased to the mourner.  If the mourner is the son or daughter of the deceased, they must never repair that garment again, but others may do so after thirty days.

The funeral will come swiftly, within three days if at all possible, for the Jews forbid embalming.  They take seriously the scripture that says “From dust you were made and to dust you shall return.”  (the same word can mean ash or slime.  Interestingly, the very first life-form to evolve on Earth was the slime-mold—our most ancient ancestor.)  For this reason, wherever it is legal, many Jews prefer burial in a shroud rather than a coffin.  If they must use a coffin, they will make it of wood, not metal.  They will not line it, and they will drill holes in the bottom.  Christians remember Jesus saying, “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s,” but the Jews also render unto Earth what is Earth’s.

Next comes Avelut, a mourning period in three stages.  Throughout this time nobody listens to music or attends joyous events or parties, unless the date for something like a wedding or a bar mitzvah had already been set, in which case it is forbidden to cancel it.

The first stage of mourning is called Shiva (sitting Shiva, in the USA) a period of seven days.  Mourners gather in the home of the deceased’s family.  I’m not sure how that would work in nationwide mourning.  For that week they will not shower or bathe, wear leather or jewelry or shave.  They will cover their mirrors because this is no time to worry about appearance.  They will sit on the floor, or on low stools if that is not physically possible, symbolic of being brought low by grief.

Their first meal after the funeral will consist of round things, such as lentils or hard boiled eggs.  Friends and family will come and visit throughout this week to comfort the mourners.  They will not speak unless spoken to by the mourning family, and the mourning family is under no obligation to talk to them at all.  They reverse roles, in that the visitors act as hosts, bringing and serving food, cleaning the home, and taking care of all the details of hospitality.  If spoken to and thus freed to speak, they offer blessings and prayers that God will comfort the mourners, end distress, bring them good news, etc.  And they will hold prayer services.  Sometimes they will simply sit with the mourners and weep with them, rocking where they sit.

Then comes Shloshim, a thirty-day period.  The mourners do not marry in this time or attend religious feasts.  Mourners, though, will sometimes perform religious deeds of merit during this time for the benefit of the deceased, such as memorizing scriptures or committing to studying a course of holy writings in the deceased’s name, with the belief that this will go to the dead one’s credit in the afterlife.  From this custom, in part, evolved the Catholic custom of praying for the dead.

For a parent additional rituals take place for twelve months after (the shneim asar Chodesh) but they do not apply to anyone else, so these would not come up in nationwide mourning.  Similarly they have annual memorial customs observed by the immediate family.



27)  Then Simon erected over the tomb of his father and his brothers a monument of stones, polished front and back, and raised high enough to be seen at a distance. 28)  He set up seven pyramids facing one another for his father and his mother and his four brothers. 29)  For the pyramids he devised a setting of massive columns, which he adorned with suits of armor as a perpetual memorial, and next to the armor carved ships, which could be seen by all who sailed the sea. 30)  This tomb which he built at Modein is there to the present day.

COMMENTARY:  At least the present day of the writer.  But even as I write this (in 2018) archaeologists excavate what they believe might be the remains of this tomb—a very recent discovery!

The embellishments make this a highly unusual tomb.  Seven pyramids means that Simon numbers himself with his brothers and parents; by now he has grown old for the times, and must think of his own pending death.  The columns would have stood around them, connected into porticos.  Armor honors Jonathan’s military conquests, while the ship motif pays homage to his gaining access to the Mediterranean for his people, through Joppa (Simon gives him credit for this victory, although he himself had to finish what Jonathan started.)



31)  Trypho dealt treacherously with the young King Antiochus. He killed him

COMMENTARY:  Yes, you can hardly get more treacherous than that!  Poor child, born to be a political pawn, even as his mother and father before him.



32) and became king in his place, putting on the crown of Asia. Thus he brought much evil on the land.

COMMENTARY:  Those willing to kill for power rarely make good rulers.  And indeed, other sources say that he became unpopular among his own soldiers, for his cruelty and his manipulative greed, and for the chaos caused by his wars against those with more legitimate claims.  Many of his men deserted to Demetrius II, who by now had escaped his last captivity.



33)  Simon, for his part, built up the strongholds of Judea, fortifying them all around with high towers, thick walls, and gates with bars, and he stored up provisions in the strongholds.

COMMENTARY:  He’s taking advantage of a lull in combat due to Trypho and Demetrius fighting it out between them.  Storing up provisions means making them capable of withstanding siege—unlike the citadel.  He’s not about to wait till the last minute when he needs the walls the most.



34)  Simon also chose men and sent them to King Demetrius to obtain for the land an exemption from taxation, since Trypho did nothing but plunder.

COMMENTARY:  Simon also sees this time as the one opportunity he’ll have to mend the burnt bridge between him and Demetrius, because right now Demetrius will agree to anything to gain an ally against Trypho, and because Simon wouldn’t be the first formerly rebellious subject who decided that Trypho was even worse than Demetrius.  But he’s going to try and get better terms, all the same, with the king in no position to argue.



35)  King Demetrius replied favorably and sent him the following letter:

COMMENTARY:  Of course he has to.  But sending the reply in a letter  (which he can’t avoid doing, being too tied up with his war to make the journey to Jerusalem) means creating a paper document to hold him to these agreements if the occasion arises when he no longer sees any advantage in abiding by what he said.



36)  “King Demetrius sends greetings to Simon, high priest and friend of kings, and to the elders and the Jewish people.

COMMENTARY:  Conferring this title gives Simon the legitimacy he needs, in the eyes of his own people.



37)  We have received the gold crown and the palm branch that you sent. We are ready to make a lasting peace with you and to write to our officials to grant you exemption.

COMMENTARY:  The gold crown and palm branch in turn recognize the legitimacy of King Demetrius II as an emperor over Jewish territory, including it into the Seleucid Empire once more.  (Scholars debate whether the palm branch was a palm-shaped golden staff, or a garment edged in golden palm embroidery, but all agree that it was a peace-offering, and a token of surrender—very token, in this case.)  The exemption from taxes means that they are a client state with a measure of autonomy, able to collect their own taxes to run their own government, and not simply an extension of King Demetrius’s direct reign.



38)  Whatever decrees we have made in your regard remain in force, and the strongholds that you have built you may keep.

COMMENTARY:  He’s welcoming them back to the fold with full rights, not on probation.



39)  We pardon any oversights and offenses committed up to now, as well as the crown tax that you owe. Any other tax that used to be collected in Jerusalem shall no longer be collected there.

COMMENTARY:  They are now officially, in a document, pardoned for rebelling and therefore subject to no punishment for it—general amnesty.  The crown tax past due will be written off as Demetrius cuts his losses, along with any future revenues.  Ideally he’d like to have them completely under his thumb and milking them for all they’re worth, but in practical terms he recognizes that they make much better friends than enemies, and he’ll take what he can get.



40)  Any of you qualified for enrollment in our service may be enrolled. Let there be peace between us.”

COMMENTARY:  He phrases this as if granting a privilege, in order to save face, but here comes the motive, the thing he gets out of this exchange: seasoned, proven soldiers.  He’s fought them long enough to know their worth, after all.



41Thus in the one hundred and seventieth year, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel,

COMMENTARY:  That would be March or April of 141 BC, by the Temple Calendar.  Technically they are still under Gentile control, but for all practical purpose the hands of those Gentiles are now tied as to what they can do about it...for now.



 42) and the people began to write in their records and contracts, “In the first year of Simon, great high priest, governor, and leader of the Jews.”

COMMENTARY:  Interesting, that they didn’t start this kind of reckoning till they got to Simon.  He finally gave them what they wanted, but to be fair his other brothers set up generations of infrastructure for him to build upon.  And that’s an important point:  the really big achievements, the things that most need done, take generations to accomplish.

No such documents have survived, but we can still confirm that they did this, because coins minted in that time are numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4, according to the years of Simon’s reign.  Yet it didn’t seem to last after that.



43) In those days Simon besieged Gazara and surrounded it with troops. He made a siege machine, brought it up against the city, and attacked and captured one of the towers.

COMMENTARY:  AKA Gezer, a strategic fortification in the Shephelah.  He made the siege machine according to a design devised by one Demetrius Policetes, AKA King Demetrius I of Macedon, not to be confused with King Demetrius II’s father, who’d had wars a century before with both Egypt and the Seleucids, not to mention the occasional alliance.



44)  Those in the siege machine leaped down into the city and a great tumult arose there.

COMMENTARY:  That’s the chief function of siege machines, to get stuff over fortress walls, be they missiles, fire, or soldiers.  The other function is to try and destroy those walls.  The design varies depending on which you want to do, and what you want to get into the fortress. 

This particular one did both.  It consisted of a wooden tower on wheels, with ladders inside, light enough for soldiers or beasts of burden to move it up against the wall, but sturdy enough to shield soldiers within from arrows, plus a battering ram to punch huge holes in walls through which those soldiers could enter.  It had an opening at the top for soldiers to emerge from, and a sort of drawbridge to poke through the hole that it had made.

It made the hole high up, knocking down that portion of wall from which archers fired from to rain ruin down on the besiegers outside.  The soldiers would not have to leap far, because the top of a fortress wall has catwalks for those archers.  Whether geographic or artificial it always helps to take the high ground.

The first wave of soldiers to rush out of the siege machine would come equipped for standard hand-to-hand combat; these would attack the enemy archers before they had a chance to drop their bows in favor of close-quarter weapons.  Then archers of their own would take up position behind them to shoot arrows on soldiers below them inside the stronghold, covering the descent of the first wave down the same ladders and stairs by which their enemies climbed up to the catwalks in the first place.



45)  Those in the city, together with their wives and children, went up on the wall, with their garments rent, and cried out in loud voices, begging Simon to grant them terms of peace.

COMMENTARY:  They brought their wives and children not only to soften the hearts of the invaders, but also to show their peaceful intentions.  They aren’t about to betray a truce with their kids right beside them.



46)  They said, “Treat us not according to our evil deeds but according to your mercy.”

COMMENTARY:  They don’t try to justify siding with the enemy.  Mercy requires admission of need for it, without entitlement.



47)  So Simon came to terms with them and did not attack them. He expelled them from the city, however, and he purified the houses in which there were idols. Then he entered the city with hymns and songs of praise.

COMMENTARY:  It’s a hard fortune to be turned out homeless.  But it’s better than the usual fate of the defeated: slaughter of all who still fight (plus collateral damage in the deaths of any noncombatants who got in the way) and enslavement of the survivors, warrior or not. 

Instead, the Gazarans would have to beg for a time, glean fields for a time, and scavenge the wild, but by and large they would live through this hardship, and they would be able to choose their own course in the broad lands beyond.  Eventually they would find their footing in new communities, work for others until they earned enough to work for themselves once more, and in a year or two their travails would be no more than a tragic memory.

Granted, some of them would become slaves anyway, selling themselves if they could find no better opportunities for food and shelter.  But at least they could choose their own masters—voluntary economic slaves had this huge advantage over slaves taken by force.  And by the law of the land they would go free in seven years or less.  They might have been idolaters, but they were still ethnically Jewish, and had rights even in bondage.



48)  After removing from it everything that was impure, he settled there people who observed the law. He improved its fortifications and built himself a residence.

COMMENTARY:  “People who observe the law” shows that they’re replacing Jewish non-observers of the law, not Gentiles, who would otherwise have been named as such.



49)  The people in the citadel in Jerusalem were prevented from going out into the country and back to buy or sell; they suffered greatly from hunger, and many of them died of starvation. 50)  They finally cried out to Simon, and he gave them terms of peace. He expelled them from the citadel and cleansed it of impurities.

COMMENTARY:  As horrible as this is, all they had to do to put a stop to it was to cry out for terms of peace.  They had used the citadel as a staging ground for killing others and they couldn’t be allowed to continue doing that, but they did receive mercy when they humbled themselves to ask for it.



51)  On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered the citadel with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, the playing of harps and cymbals and lyres, and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been crushed.

COMMENTARY:  That’s June 3, 141 BC.  Palm branches in the Middle East, as I should have mentioned before, can symbolize victory, peace, triumph, and/or immortality, depending on the occasion and the culture.  Giving a palm to someone else says, “You win.  Let’s put our conflict behind us.”  Waving palm branches while entering a newly conquered city says, “We win!  Now let’s put all of this behind us and get on with our lives peaceably.”

This is why the Romans got antsy (and the Sanhedrin along with them, fearing retaliation) when the people of Jerusalem greeted Jesus with palm branches.  Did He come to claim victory or to declare peace?  And they didn’t just hand him palm fronds, they laid them on the ground before him for his donkey to walk on—total submission!  This  seemed to say that they were surrendering Jerusalem to Him as their new leader, yet Jesus riding on a donkey and not a warhorse seemed to indicate peaceful intentions—but would such intentions hold in the face of so much blatant surrender?  To further complicate the symbolism, the date palm had by then become the official symbol of Judea in the Roman Empire, since the Romans’ favorite export from Judea was dates—were they giving Jesus all of Judea? 

The Romans did not understand that Jesus had a different kind of victory in mind, something subtler than a land-grab.  Surrender to Him does not usually require a change of worldly allegiance, so long as the orders of their temporal leaders don’t violate God’s law.



52)  Simon decreed that this day should be celebrated every year with rejoicing. He also strengthened the fortifications of the temple mount alongside the citadel, and he and his people dwelt there.

COMMENTARY:  Of the various dates of celebration declared by the Maccabees, only Hanukkah has survived.  This was not Hanukkah.

Time makes its own triage.  Too many holidays means too little work gets done.  People start to choose which ones matter most to them. 

Many believe that Hanukkah survived in part because it gave Jews a way to cherish their children with gifts, at a time when their neighbors’ children were also receiving gifts, and also from the human need to receive reassurance from God, as the nights grow long and cold, that God will always make sure that the light never goes out completely, and that it will increase again.  This mattered especially when the Diaspora forced Jews to scatter northward into colder climates, darker in winter, than where they came from.  Whatever the case, Hanukkah evolved from a minor holiday teetering on the edge of extinction, to one so prominent that it’s usually the only one that non-Jews can name.



53)  Seeing that his son John was now a grown man, Simon made him commander of all his soldiers, and he dwelt in Gazara.

COMMENTARY: That would be John Hyrcanus, eventually his successor as High Priest and head of state.  Simon has grown old enough to know that his physical ability to lead soldiers in battle won’t last much longer and it’s time to put someone else in charge of the physical side of his duties.  This also brought home his mortality, and the need to train a successor entire.

Back Index Forward